The study of history is dead. That may seem an odd assertion, given that I am reviewing a very good work of history, Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars. But books like this are read by a tiny audience—hard to say how big, but I would be shocked if more than ten thousand people had read this book, and it is by a known author. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or even most of the academic world, knows anything about actual history.
Sometimes I think it is a fool’s errand to study economics and hope for enlightenment. Much economics knowledge is too simple for that goal—for example, the relationship of supply and demand to prices. Such facts are easy to grasp through direct personal experience. But beyond that, actual enlightenment never comes, because, as everybody knows, economics is not a science. Economists can’t even analyze the past with any precision or unanimity, much less the future. Because I thought highly of the explanations of monetary policy in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Money, I hoped that by reading this book I would at least move further down the curve toward enlightenment. But even the best writers cannot spin straw into gold.
English traditional conservatives today exhibit a depressed passivity. They ruminate, probably with a glass of claret in hand, on how good the past was and how little can be done about today. Doubtless this enervation has to do with living in The Place Where Great Britain Used To Be, which is, like most of Europe (other than Hungary and Poland), a den of thought suppression and self-hatred, cursed with leaders who are mealy-mouthed, emasculated men and women of no use or value. Caught with wine glass in hand, the prolific Roger Scruton, who somehow manages to combine the highest quality thought with constant output, offers us a combination of worthwhile philosophy and worthless enervation. At best, this combination is unsatisfying. More importantly, this book is not timely, because it is inwardly focused and passively philosophical, in an age when too much focus on philosophy, and too little focus on brute action, has, like Judas Iscariot, betrayed conservatism into the hands of its enemies.
In the past few years, a variety of liberal academics have adopted a Gorillas in the Mist sensibility when trying to understand conservatives. Like Dian Fossey, they creep, wearing a ghillie suit, through thick and steamy jungles alien to them, hoping to grasp what it is that makes these creatures tick. Sometimes they become fond of these primates, and in their own clumsy way, try to improve their lives by protecting them from threats they appear too dumb to see. Like Fossey, most of them are obsessives with tunnel vision, bound in chains by premises invisible to them. Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, fits right into this model, even if Wisconsin is a long way from Rwanda, and a lot colder. She offers us a book that is half morality play, half sociology study, and all clueless.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you. More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”—that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another. The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality. The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.
The Gunpowder Age succeeds in its lesser goal, which is convincing the reader that the common belief the Chinese only used gunpowder for fireworks is wrong. But it fails in its greater goal, which is convincing the reader that except for a brief period in recent history, China has been the equal of the West in the technology of warfare. And, in the wreckage of its failure, it confirms and reinforces the accurate perception that China has, for a thousand years, been lacking in scientific and cultural innovation. Since a lack of innovation has negative implications for the Chinese future, and by modern Western standards is a negative judgment on Chinese society, this is probably not the effect that the Sinophile author of this book, Tonio Andrade, intended to achieve.
Leviathan Wakes is extremely well written, with a tight plot and carefully chosen prose. This alone separates it from the vast majority of today’s science fiction. Nor is it tendentious message fiction, further separating it from most modern science fiction, which is all about the navel-gazing identity of the characters, mostly as thinly veiled metaphor for present-day political conflicts. Thus, the taut, straightforward story here has broad appeal, which is doubtless is at least part of the reason it has been serialized into a TV series (on SyFy), called The Expanse. I haven’t seen the series, but if it is reasonably faithful to the book, it is probably very much worth watching. Most importantly, it shows how a modern version of Manifest Destiny could work, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains. I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000. Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book. Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day. But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome. This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.